The Cutting Edge

Campus churns out unique, compelling research, touching lives across the world


Editor’s note: Because of technical difficulties, a video featuring research at MSU was unable to be posted.

At MSU, the overflow of research almost is seductive. The university attracts expert researchers from across the world, prides itself on having many unearthed scientific discoveries and budgeted more than $500 million for research in the 2011-12 academic year.

With a goal to be one of the top research institutions internationally, Stephen Hsu, the vice president for research and graduate studies, said MSU’s research has an impact on the state, nation and globe.

Adam Toolin / The State News
Infographic by Drew Dzwonkowski / The State News

This research lies in various fields studying everything from the collision of atoms to plant photosynthesis investigation and robotic fish technologies to the construction of computerized artificial brains, he said.

“The majority of really deep research done in the country is done at research universities like MSU,” Hsu said. “If the future 50 years from now is really (advanced), it will be because of the research done today at research universities.”

Hsu said the majority of the funding comes from federal sources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Although the funding mostly is granted to science fields, all of MSU’s colleges receive some research funding.

At MSU, ­there are many faculty members and students hoping to make a leap and uncover an advancement in technology through research.

Studies at the speed of light
The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB, is putting a spotlight from the nuclear science world on MSU by creating a facility capable of bringing in some of the top scientists from across the globe.

The facility will allow scientists to use nuclear physics to speed up common elements to about half the speed of light to better understand their make up.

“FRIB will provide unique opportunities for scientists to make discoveries,” FRIB Project Manager Thomas Glasmacher said. “Those discoveries will lead to advances in nuclear science, nuclear astrophysics and in applications that benefit society in areas including medicine, materials science, the environment and national security.”

FRIB has received a majority of its funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science , or DOE-SC, with additional funding from MSU and the state. The completion of FRIB will cost about $680 million ,with MSU and the state of Michigan covering $94.5 million combined and DOE-SC covering the remainder, Glasmacher said. The funds FRIB receives from the DOE-SC will come annually and changes from year to year.

FRIB is scheduled to be ready for research as early as 2019 — with a more reasonable deadline of 2021.

“FRIB will be the most powerful rare isotope research facility in the world and will maintain our leadership in rare isotope science,” Glasmacher said. “It will provide many opportunities to collaborate with researchers from around the world and across campus.”

Gold-breathing bacteria
Picture the ocean, filled with dissolved gold, said Adam Brown, electronic art and intermedia associate professor.

Imagine having the technology and ability to harvest the gold fortune into a solid form, Brown said, explaining the premise for his research.

This, he said, is what grabs people’s attention.

It is a research project Brown and microbiology and molecular genetics assistant professor Kazem Kashefi have been working on for more than a year as an experimental research “pet project,” Kashefi said.

The experiment uses a bacteria called cupriavidus metallidurans, which uses its metabolic process to turn gold-three — a liquid gold — into gold-zero, the 24-karat solid gold familiar to most people, the professors said.

“This organism, this particle — they breathe (gold), like we breath oxygen,” Kashefi said.

The research project, currently on display at the MSU Museum, partially was funded with a $20,000 Humanities and Research Program grant from MSU, Brown said.

Brown said about 10 milligrams of 24-karat gold can be produced per day in the custom-made, partially gold-plated system.

“A lot of people think that gold was just formed in the earth through heat and pressure,” Brown said. “But it turns out it’s very likely that an organism has something to do with that whole process in the earth.”

This project is in the experimental stages, the professors said. Although they said it is possible to create more gold and expedite the process, both agreed they are not yet sure what the environmental impacts could be if it were to be used industrially to collect gold.

“We can create the genie,” Brown said. “It’s just that, do you want to release the genie?”

Leading math education
When the U.S. saw its K-12 students were behind and below other countries internationally, William Schmidt helped lead the charge in schools.

A professor in MSU’s College of Education, Schmidt has led the research and evaluation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, or CCSSM, a common mathematical educational standard. The project has been implemented and picked up by about 45 states, he said.

In 2012, Schmidt received a $1 million grant from the GE Foundation to re-evaluate the proper use of textbooks and monitor select teachers’ lesson plans to ensure U.S. students are competitive in the global sphere.

Overall, he said he has received about $4 million from the GE Foundation for his research on this topic.

“(The CCSSM) says what should be taught at each (grade) level,” Schmidt said. “It’s quite a change for American education — a revolutionary change.”

At MSU, Schmidt works with undergraduate and graduate students on the research, he said.

Before this standard was set, Schmidt said it was up to each state to set mathematics standards.
The country’s weakest area was its mathematics curriculum at the seventh-grade and eighth-grade levels, he said. With the CCSSM, the teachers now are required to teach algebra and geometry in the eighth grade.

Jeff Burgess, an eighth-grade math teacher at MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, said he has been working with Schmidt during his research, recording what he teaches and adapting to the new regulations.

The new math standard has been helpful to his students, Burgess said.

“We’re not covering things a mile wide and three inches deep,” Burgess said. “It’s teaching (10) different things and doing it really well so kids can learn and move on.”

Many schools are in the transitional stages of CCSSM, and in 2014 the standard will take full effect in all schools in states requiring the program, Burgess said.

Corn into gas
For biomedical laboratory science senior Kaelee Jonick, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, or GLBRC, has been part of her college life since she came to campus.

GLBRC Director Jonathan Walton said the center’s purpose is to find economically feasible ways to swap cellulosic biofuels with gasoline in vehicles.

In Walton’s research, he works to decompose cellulosic materials, such as those found in corn, and break it down into sugars, such as glucose, which can then be made into ethanol.

Jonick works as a student lab assistant, assisting technicians with the field research.

“It’s definitely beneficial that were doing the research for that,” Jonick said. “But I feel like there needs to be more research in order to benefit it, and that’s what were trying to do.”

GLBRC as a whole received a grant of $125 million during a five-year period from the U.S. Department of Energy, which is split between the center at MSU and its partners at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The MSU site receives $10 million annually in direct research funds, Walton said.

The previous five-year funding period just ended, but the GLBRC’s grant was renewed, and it is beginning its sixth year of research with the grant, he said.

Walton said society is coming to an “economic hump,” and has acknowledged petroleum will not be an available resource in the near future.

“We can almost compete with starch-based ethanol, but not quite,” Walton said. “We need some more technical breakthroughs, and our job is to provide the basic science.”

Where’d you get them apples?
Creating a more effective way to fertilize apples and cherries is the task at hand for Matthew Grieshop, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology.

Grieshop is leading one of three studies associated with the Speciality Crop Research Initiative, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA.

Grieshop is trying to design the best fertilizer input system to give farmers a more efficient way to nurture their crops without the annoying tractor’s pesticide blast. The new system would be gentler, shooting upward from the ground, he said.

The team of 30-plus workers have received $2.5 million from the USDA, with matching funds of $2.5 million from other commodity groups across the state.

“We are trying something radically different with research that has only been around for a few years,” Grieshop said. “Even if that doesn’t come to pass in 20 years, it will eventually. And we will have laid down the foot prints.”

Like Grieshop, associate professor in the Department of Horticulture Ryan Warner has received a USDA grant for a project involving genomics-based approaches to improve petunia production efficiency and performance.

The USDA grant of $1.3 million has been used primarily for personnel and equipment, with the group set to reapply for the grant in September 2015, Warner said.

“It really started with a need from the industry,” Warner said. “A lot of these growers are operating on small charges, and anytime we can reduce the cost of production we’ve done something productive.”

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The State News.